Telangana Adivasi woman sexually assaulted, tortured for fighting land grab

The case has brought to light state negligence in the region when it comes to protecting vulnerable groups from exploitation and bonded labour.
Telangana Adivasi woman sexually assaulted, tortured for fighting land grab
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A 27-year-old Adivasi woman was sexually assaulted and tortured in Telangana’s Nagarkurnool district allegedly by a landed family involved in sand mining in her village, and was provided medical care only 15 days later. Nirmalamma (name changed) was beaten up and sexually assaulted, her genitals burned with sticks, her own family members forced to assault her, her husband forced into bonded labour — all this because she refused to sign over a piece of land to a powerful family.

The main accused in the case are Venkatesulu and Shivamma, a couple from the Golla community, a pastoral BC caste in Telangana; and Nirmalamma’s own sister and brother-in-law, who were forced into bonded labour by the former. All four accused have been arrested. Nirmalamma and her family belong to the Chenchu tribe, categorised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) that relies on hunting and daily wage labour for sustenance.

When TNM visited Molachintalapally, the village where the incident happened, Nirmalamma told us that she was tortured for refusing to sign over the piece of land, and that while four accused have been arrested, she is still afraid for her safety because another man who had threatened her over the issue has not faced any action.

A case was booked under Sections 307 (attempt to murder), 354 (assault or criminal force on a woman), 376 (punishment for rape) read with Section 34 (acts done by several people in furtherance of a common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) along with relevant sections of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Defiance over land grab

According to Nirmalamma, Venkatesulu had bought four acres of land from her father-in-law sometime back, but he paid less than half the agreed upon price. “Recently, they asked me to sign over two acres of land owned by my husband and me. While my husband Yadayya (name changed) signed, I refused to do so,” she said.

After Nirmalamma’s torture, the Kollapur police while investigating the case in the last week of June found her father-in-law’s buried dead body, which has been sent for postmortem. Yadayya’s brother, Satish (name changed) has alleged that their father was killed because he fought with Venkatesulu’s family, demanding the rest of the money from the land sale. The police is yet to make any arrests in that case.

What followed Nirmalamma’s act of defiance was humiliation and torture. Nirmalamma was mobbed by several of her family members along with Venkatesulu and Shivamma, accused of having an extra marital affair, humiliated, and assaulted. When Nirmalamma still refused to sign over the piece of land, her husband Yadayya was forced to work at Venkatesulu’s sand mine for over 10 days, kept inebriated for the whole duration, in an attempt to force Nirmalamma to sign over the land.

On June 8, Nirmalamma was brought to Venkatesulu’s property where she was restrained, beaten up, and her genitals burned. According to the survivor’s medical reports accessed by TNM, she suffered first degree burns on her genitals and inner thighs.

Delayed medical attention

Following the torture, the accused called for the village’s Resident Medical Practioner (RMP) Dr Ramakrishna, who prescribed an ointment and provided no further care for the genital burns. According to the doctor, he wasn't aware of the burns at all. “They only showed me her thighs. I didn’t know about the genitalia burns because it was covered up. So I prescribed an ointment and gave her an injection. I managed to treat her only superficially,” RMP Dr Ramakrishna told TNM. He said that accused claimed Nirmalamma had consumed too much sarai (liquor) and had accidentally fallen into a fire.

It was only 15 days later when Nirmalamma approached the police that she finally got the medical care that she needed. She was shifted to Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) in Hyderabad, 189 kilometers from Molachintalapally.

Bonded labour as ‘punishment’

Several of Molachintalapally’s residents hail from the Chenchu tribe, who rely on either daily wage labour or the bordering Nallamala forest for hunting. Most of them do not own any land in the state. Professor V Subramanayam in his paper ‘Social Exclusion and Vulnerability of PVTGs in Andhra Pradesh: Future Strategic Plan of Action for its Inclusive Growth and Development’ noted, “Chenchus are still living in most economic backward condition and majority people in the community are in pursuit of foraging activity along with labour employment in forest department.”

Nirmalamma and her family are therefore among a small minority in the tribe who owns any land, making the attempt at land grab extremely significant.

The Golla caste to which Venkatesulu and Shivamma belong, otherwise not very powerful in Telangana, holds significant sway over the tribal populace in this region.

Venkatesulu's family primarily run sand mines in Molachintalapally. Chenchu residents TNM spoke to said that while most of the tribe they kept to hunting and labour for livelihood, Venkatesulu forcefully employed Nirmalamma’s family at different points of time. Nirmalamma told TNM that her sister and brother-in-law, who were bonded labourers for over two years in Venkatesulu’s sand business, unwillingly participated in her torture as they were threatened by Venkatesulu.

While the torture and land grab have gained attention in media, activists say that it's important to also focus on the issue of bonded labour in this case.

Krishnan, the executive director of National Adivasi Solidarity Council (NASC), which assisted Nirmalamma on the case, said, “Nirmalamma’s sister and brother-in-law, who are now in prison, were disallowed from interacting with the villagers and forced to work in Venkatesulu’s mines for over two years. However, Nirmalamma and her husband only worked there on occasion whenever there was a need for employment.”

Once the torture came to light, release certificates were issued to Nirmalamma and her husband Yadayya by the Revenue Division Officer (RDO) P Nagaraju. These certificates are important for victims to seek compensation under the bonded labour law. There is no clarity on whether Nirmalamma's sister and brother-in-law have also been provided with release certificates, and whether others in the family or village were also forced into bonded labour.

Activists allege that despite bonded labour being a huge problem in the region, officials are refusing to acknowledge the issue as it will make them look bad. When contacted by TNM, the RDO P Nagaraju refused to comment on the issue, and remarked that he had been transferred.

Negligence from the state

Following outrage from media and civil society, the Congress led state government assured support for the survivor. “We will ensure that a parcel of government land along with Rs 2 lakh is given to the family. The education of Nirmalamma’s daughters will also be taken care of by the state government,” Telangana minister and Kollapur MLA Jupally Krishna Rao told the media on June 22.

Opposition Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also issued statements in support of the woman, dubbing the instance as ‘an attack on an Adivasi daughter’.

For Nirmalamma however, the torture isn’t a major concern anymore. Seated next to her mother, she told us that Venkatesulu’s younger brother Shivudu, who also operates the sand mines, is yet to be arrested. DSP Srinivas remarked that he wasn’t arrested because he wasn’t a part of the torture, a statement corroborated by Nirmalamma. “However, he has threatened and beaten me for not giving up my land in the past,” she said.

After speaking to us, Nirmalamma went to a school, five minutes away from her home to get an Aadhar card made for her. “Up until news broke of the torture, Collectors and senior politicians seldom visited Molachintalapally. Post the incident, the village has witnessed district officials, politicians visiting, provisions being made for people to get identity proofs,” Krishnan said, pointing out the irony.

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